You go up to the allotment in the late afternoon and everything is bursting with juice. The scent of the strawberry patch makes it impossible to walk past without stuffing yourself to the point of queasiness. So once you’ve reached the point of no more eating you pick and you pick and fill a big Tupperware container with strawberries, raspberries, tayberries. How beautiful and glistening they are. You take a picture of them for twitter and get some virtual applause for owning such very fine berries, then you wash them and pick the wriggling things off of them and all have big bowls of them with ice cream after tea. Then there’s still loads left so you pop them in the fridge and all eat them with yoghurt for a breakfast so healthy and seasonal and gorgeous. But – oh – there’s STILL loads left that evening and now they’re not quite so tempting, plus you’ve really eaten quite a lot of strawberries in the last 24 hours. You’ll just leave them sitting there in the fridge, for tomorrow. By then the ones closest to the back have got a bit too cold and developed severe mush all down one side, the others look a bit pale and troubled. You show them to the children and they pull faces. You dont even consider showing them to twitter.
It seems criminal for any home-grown berry that once aromatically wafted across your entire plot to end up on the compost heap, and so last night I mined the fridge for these nearly-gruesome bits of pre-compost, put them in a pan, added a couple of spoonfuls of vanilla sugar plus an old vanilla pod fished out of it and the juice of about half a lime, and simmered for about ten minutes before switching it off to cool (this is not actually jam of course, probably more compote, and it wouldn’t last if jarred, but it only had to last until the morning and the kids are more likely to eat jam than compote, so jam it was named). I then made drop scone mix, covered both with cling film, and went to sleep. This morning we breakfasted like kings, queens, princes, and really quite stroppy little princesses (despite the fact that her mother had gone to all that trouble).
I am the least OCD person you know. My kitchen is more often messy than not, my children more often grubby. That’s fine. That’s how goddam laissez faire I am. But I am hugely uptight about folding. I like to make beds ON MY OWN thank you, when I can take all the time I need to smooth and tuck and repeat. I go into a special sort of zone when the tent has to be put away at the end of a camping trip, dragging it off to a quiet spot and endlessly circling and adjusting and then – finally – folding.
And I had it again yesterday when we put the skin onto the polytunnel. A polytunnel skin is a flat sheet, a poltunnel a half cylinder, so there are potentially a lot of imperfect and flappy bits. At the ends around the doors you have to make these folds in order to pull everything tight and neat. Everyone else back off: I am in my happy place now. Shh…
Imperfect, even so, but I liked it enough to take a photo of it.
Two summers ago I met an 80-year-old man who had worked his allotment plot all of his adult life. His father had worked a plot on the site before him, and his grandfather before that. There was the human history of this allotment site, laid out before me in lifetimes. It put a shiver down my spine.
It also started me thinking about my own allotment’s lineage, about who might have worked my plot, and about what was happening in the wider world while they did. This has led to my new idea, which is to try to trace back the names of each of the plot’s previous holders. I was working away at this project, spending much of my time at the Bristol records office sifting through piles of old papers, trying to beat the idea into good enough shape to approach a publisher, when I was approached by Matthew Wilson and Simon Bisset about making some films for their new YouTube channel Digging It. Being quite obsessed and having almost no other thoughts in my head I suggested we try to make a little film or two about this, and they liked the idea. So Simon and I spent a freezing day up at the plot getting hailed on and generally blown about, and we made this video, below, which tells just a little of the start of my research. The research is as yet a very incomplete thing, and I am still feeling my way around how to find the information I need, but I am enjoying the process and I hope you enjoy the film.
Please do subscribe to the channel if you like it. There will be more episodes from me, and lovely films from others too.
‘I always have a glut of gooseberries,’ I announced, swaggeringly. ‘We’ll use gooseberries for the supper club.’ Gooseberries are no apricots (still no fruit, nor even flowers), they are not even strawberries (reluctantly bearing fruit to get quickly munched by a tsunami of slugs). They are easy, dependable and even a little over zealous, and are one of the crops I always get just a little bit sick of by the time they call it a season.
Not so this year. The crop was small. Really very small. I wont take my tart lovelies for granted again. Im inclined to blame This Pants Summer (TM) but do tell me if you’ve had a bumper crop; maybe my old dependables are just getting old and undependable. I think I’d prefer that. It all feels a bit apocalyptic/2012 if even gooseberries can’t cope with a British summer.
But it turns out a gooseberry knickerbocker glory is the perfect thing to do with a smidgeon of gooseberries. The beauty of your gooseberry knickerbocker glory – well, one of the great many beauties of your gooseberry knickerbocker glory – is that the sharp fruit is layered with ice cream, sweeter stuff, crunchy things, and whatever delights you can think of to make it go further and to complement and enhance it. Here’s what went into mine:
Elderflower ice cream
Gooseberry puree, only slightly sweetened
Chantilly cream (double cream whipped with vanilla and icing sugar)
A few sweet, pink, dessert gooseberries, raw
Crystallised and frozen elderflowers
I wont give you recipes or we’ll be here all day, but you get the idea. All of this was made up in advance and spooned, giggling, into the glasses at the last moment. Fun, fun. The sweet pink dessert gooseberries were the clincher: one in the bottom of each glass (like the gobstopper in the base of a Screwball), a layer of chopped ones somewhere in the middle, and one like a cherry on top. We bought a punnet, but if I’m going to be replanting this is where I’ll start. They were delicious.
The only essential here is the correct glass – it must look like it has been nicked from a 1950s diner – and the correct long spoon, for delving into the depths. Other than that this is more a blueprint than a recipe. Knock yourself out, play around: have fun with your gooseberry dearth.
I love the above picture supper club guest Jason Ingram took of me and Juliet delivering them to the table, mainly because – by dint of lucking into in the fuzzy bit near the instagram border – I look a bit like something from a 1950s diner myself. I think I must be whipping up the crowd by going ‘Ooh!’ as I hand them out, and I am planning to go about like that more often as it has done wonders for my cheek bones. JAS has commented elsewhere that Juliet looks like ‘a hot Bavarian barmaid’, so I reckon she’ll be delighted I’ve reposted it too … Ooh…